SPRINGFIELD — Illinois food stamp recipients who are elderly, disabled or homeless could soon use their benefits to eat at restaurants.
The Restaurant Meals Program bill, which is awaiting a state Senate vote after approval by the House in late March, aims to add Illinois to a short list of states that have opted into a federal program that allows certain people to redeem food stamps at participating restaurants.
Restaurants, which must offer discounted menus to be eligible, can voluntarily apply to participate and are not required to enroll.
Currently, recipients of the government's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, can only use benefits to buy groceries at retailers. They cannot use them for dine-in meals or to buy hot food sold at grocery stores.
That's challenging for homeless people without access to cooking supplies or storage space, as well as for some elderly or disabled people who may not be able to cook safely in their kitchens, said Niya Kelly, state legislative director at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.
Though soup kitchens and other providers offer free hot meals, they have limited hours and variety so people with certain allergies or nighttime school or work hours can't always rely on them, Kelly said. As a result, she said, many people make do with a bag of chips.
In addition to making it easier for people to grab a meal, giving SNAP recipients access to restaurants offers them an opportunity to be part of the wider community.
"There's a certain dignity of being able to sit down somewhere knowing you bought your food and having that space to be able to do that," said Kelly, whose organization led the legislative effort alongside the Heartland Alliance and the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law.
CHICAGO — After the deaths of two Illinois State Police troopers in roadside collisions this year, Gov. J.B. Pritzker and his state police dir…
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which funds and runs SNAP, has since 1977 allowed states to make restaurants available to food stamp recipients who are aged 60 and over, have proof of disability or have a homeless certification letter from a shelter or other provider.
Currently Arizona, 11 counties in California and one county in Rhode Island participate in the program. Other states have participated in the past but eliminated it. Michigan, for example, eliminated its program in 2013 due to concerns about lack of nutritional options at restaurants and fraud at some locations, according to Bob Wheaton, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Health & Human Services. Illinois has never participated before.
The bill directs Illinois' Department of Human Services, which administers SNAP in the state, to implement the restaurant program no later than January 1, 2020. Though legislation is not required for the agency to opt in, it protects the move from being easily reversed by future administrations, advocates say.
About 1.8 million people across 900,000 households in Illinois receive SNAP, according to the state. The restaurant program would affect a fraction of them; 14 percent of SNAP households include someone who is disabled, 10 percent contain someone who is elderly and less than one percent include someone who is homeless, and many of those categories overlap, Kelly said.
In Arizona, Subway, Jack in the Box and Carl's Jr. are among the restaurants that have opted to accept SNAP, according to that state's Department of Economic Security.
SPRINGFIELD — Educators added their voices Tuesday to the chorus calling for a new public works construction program in Illinois.
But Rep. Sonya Harper, D-Chicago, chief sponsor of Illinois' bill, said she expects few fast food chains locally to be interested in participating.
Instead, she is focused on people being able to use their benefits to buy prepared food from the hot bars at grocery stores, where they already are accustomed to shopping.
Harper -- who said she herself used SNAP for about two years when she struggled to find a job after dropping out of law school because she was pregnant -- said she knows from experience how frustrating it is to not be able to grab a plate of fried chicken and mac and cheese from a store's prepared food section.
"It makes your life easier," she said.
The Illinois House voted 75-18 in favor of the bill. Those who voted against it mostly wanted to limit restaurant access to eligible individuals rather than their entire households, as the bill provides, said Kelly of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.
There are no intentions to expand the program to the SNAP population broadly, Kelly said.
Some of the debate around making restaurants eligible for SNAP involves concerns that people will use their benefits on greasy fast food. But people who live in poverty are known to budget carefully. And, Kelly said, "it is not our responsibility or our job to judge how folks survive."
The Senate is expected to vote this week or next.